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Published September 6, 2023
2023 Season Outlook: NFC West
Written by Alex C.
The NFC West isn’t exactly the glamorous showcase it once was. At one point, it looked like it was bound to be one of the most competitive divisions in the league, with all four teams making a good case for a conference championship at the bare minimum. However, 2022 saw a sporadic mess inside the division as the teams projected to contend fell off the deep end – and the few that were expected to decline ended up shocking a lot of people.
As we usher into the 2023 season, the NFC West is more unbalanced than ever as we see a clear power struggle in the lower half of its hierarchy. Still, it wouldn’t exactly be a surprise if some of these teams made a push for the crown or even pulled off a major upset in the playoffs. There’s a lot to consider with the NFC West as we ease into the upcoming season, so let’s take a look at what each team is cooking before it’s time to display the finished product.
San Francisco 49ers
Previous Record – 13-4
After falling short one game of the Super Bowl, the Niners have their sights set on building upon last season’s success – however, there are still some major issues they need to work out. San Francisco is able to stand out among a disappointing wave of NFC teams with a talented supporting cast, but there’s no real leader under center to further elevate the team. The biggest narrative to emerge from last season revolved around “Mr. Irrelevant” from the 2022 NFL Draft, Brock Purdy, who rallied the team towards the NFC Championship game while both starting quarterbacks – Trey Lance and Jimmy Garoppolo – were injured. Purdy showed flashes last year, playing at a high caliber while the league redefined what it meant to be named “Mr. Irrelevant” – but all it took was one injury for the Niner’s dreams of a sixth championship to be buried at the last moment yet again. Now, with a stacked roster – aside from the grey area surrounding the quarterback position – the Niners are entering “win now” mode.
San Francisco entered free agency looking like they had lost quite a bit from their championship-ready squad. Jimmy Garoppolo’s time in the Bay was already coming to a close anyway, but the Niners also lost offensive tackle Mike McGlinchey, linebacker Azeez Al-Shaair, and safety Jimmie Ward. This is without mentioning the loss of defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans, who helped piece together a phenomenal defense that was among the league’s best last season. The team had some solid acquisitions, though, bringing in defensive end Javon Hargrave from the enemy Eagles and keeping Tashaun Gipson Sr. involved in a threatening safety unit. To avoid the quarterback troubles that ensued throughout the previous season, the Niners brought in Sam Darnold who looks to play a backup role with the team. Darnold didn’t pan out exactly as hoped from a first-round pick, but if there’s anyone that could get his career back on track, it’s Kyle Shanahan.
The Niners’ draft was definitely a quiet one – the team didn’t start getting active until the third round due to a severe lack of draft capital. The grand majority of their 2023 picks were traded away, leaving the team with compensatory picks to build off of. Their overall selection of talent was very balanced – they picked up two tight ends and a receiver for offense, picks in the secondary and linebacker core for defense, and a kicker to finish things off. There weren’t too many standout names as the team was dealt with a limited hand, but it would be very interesting to see just how well some of these picks at defense are able to grow through this strong defensive unit.
Through thick and thin, the Niners are still projected to perform the best in an under-performing NFC division – and conference – but there still lie a lot of grey areas around the roster. Defensive end Nick Bosa has played a pivotal role of igniting the defense at any given moment, and is now at the point of his career where contract negotiations are getting tighter and tighter. The situation hasn’t been looking too good, as Bosa was left off of the official depth chart release – however, there’s no way the Niners should let a playmaker like Bosa walk away so easily. And that’s without mentioning the quarterback situation, which resulted in Trey Lance getting traded to the Dallas Cowboys after a disappointing string of preseason performances. The circumstance was handled horribly, but it appears the Niners are confident with Brock Purdy under center – however, they better hope this situation pans out well and doesn’t end up like the Kaepernick story in San Francisco. The Niners have a lot on their plate, but can easily run back another NFC Championship appearance due to the lack of powerhouses in the conference.
Season Outlook Grade – A
Previous Record – 9-8
Not a single soul expected thirty-year old Geno Smith to emerge as Seattle’s savior in what was perceived as their official fall from grace. The Seahawks salvaged everything they could following the Russell Wilson trade, bracing for what looked to be a potentially disastrous season. Fate had other plans, though, as the team rallied its way to a 9-8 finish, narrowly making the playoffs due to a last-minute Green Bay loss. Though they were bounced out of the wildcard by the rival Niners, the Seahawks left with lots to look forward to next season. With Geno surfacing as a reliable starting quarterback along with a young roster filled with loads of potential, they couldn’t have bounced back better and are already looking to improve from their previous season.
Though they miraculously advanced to a playoff berth, the Seahawks defensive and offensive lines were beyond repair. In their attempt to slap a temporary band-aid on the issue, the Hawks were able to bring in a plethora of names, including the return of longtime Seahawks defensive anchor Bobby Wagner. Wagner’s restored presence on the defensive unit is expected to help guide this young roster through proper development as well as increase their confidence as they further understand their roles on the field. They were also able to welcome more defensive names, such as safety Julian Love and defensive end Jarran Reed, just to name a few. The offseason wasn’t too flashy for the Hawks as the attention was geared towards the return of Wagner, but Seattle made more noise during the draft.
The Seahawks made out like bandits in the first-round of the 2023 NFL Draft, picking two highly-valued selections on both ends of the field. Many assumed the Hawks would go for Jalen Carter in an effort to strengthen the defensive line, but the team ended up swinging for cornerback Devon Witherspoon instead. The Seahawks already wield a lethal secondary, so the Witherspoon acquisition looks to elevate the unit even further. In addition, they were also able to walk away with Ohio State wide receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba, who was the highest rated receiving prospect in the 2023 draft class. Smith-Njigba looks to contribute to a very interesting receiving tandem alongside Tyler Lockett and D.K. Metcalf, making this once scattered roster look like a fully bloomed project that’s ready to contend.
With Seattle riding off of the sudden momentum gained from last season, it’s genuinely surprising to see how well they were able to defy the drastically low expectations set for them. Though it looks like they may have some worries surrounding the offensive line, they were able to stock up in every other area of the field in a process reminiscent of the legendary Legion of Boom’s assembly. If Pete Carroll is able to pull this type of scheme off once again as Geno performs at the same level – if not better – as he did last season, Seattle could look to bounce back as if they had never left.
Season Outlook Grade – B+
Los Angeles Rams
Previous Record – 5-12
Talk about a Super Bowl hangover. The Los Angeles Rams followed up a championship-winning season with one of the worst defending champion campaigns we’ve seen in a very long time. We can sit here and blame the sudden downfall on injuries or a lack of draft capital, but the only thing that matters is how the Rams plan to move forward – and as great of a coach Sean McVay is, things still aren’t looking too well for them. More than half the roster is comprised of rookies or undrafted free agents, which isn’t a good look when you think about how well they can perform in a league filled with seasoned professionals.
The only silver lining in this roster is that key players Aaron Donald, Cooper Kupp and Matthew Stafford are still sticking around – the only person from the Super Bowl winning squad who wasn’t able to stay was star cornerback Jalen Ramsey. If last year’s horrific downfall wasn’t bad enough, Ramsey’s trade sealed the deal on the end of the Rams’ return to contention. This offseason saw them making a lot of cuts to clear cap space, essentially clean sweeping the house minus the three that stayed. They made little to no acquisitions in free agency and maintained only a select number of players, including Sony Michel who retired shortly after re-siging.
As if free agency didn’t go bad enough, the Rams were salvaging all of their draft picks, trying to double the number they entered with. To their credit, they walked away with fourteen total selections, but all of the rookies are in for a bumpy ride. Some gems were scooped, though, as the Rams were able to pick up TCU corner Tre’Vius Hodges-Tomlinson and Tennessee edge-rusher Byron Young fairly late in the process. They also made a move for Georgia’s championship-winning quarterback Stetson Bennett, who will likely play a back-up role in the mean time.
To some extent, having a relatively young roster could be very beneficial in the long run – the team is able to synchronously develop with each other, but it’s not going to be an easy process. You’re looking at a group of recently drafted college kids that are competing with the best athletes in football, so the growing pains will deeply sting. The Rams may have to monitor the sole remaining veterans and decide if they want to opt out of such an exhausting process. Big-name player like Aaron Donald and Cooper Kupp could easily find themselves on another championship-contending roster if they don’t want to spend their remaining time trying to guide a fresh set of eyes through the league. This season is going to be quite the rollercoaster ride for the Rams organization, but there could be a lot of future potential with this team if all pans out well.
Season Outlook Grade – D+
Previous Record – 4-13
If you thought the Rams had it bad, the Cardinals have basically given up before the season even started. Their off-season started off on an oddly deceptive note as Kliff Kingsbury was finally fired from the head coaching position. Who was Kingsbury’s replacement, you ask? Johnathan Gannon – the defensive coordinator of the Eagles who gave up twenty-four points in a half. On top of the questionable coach hiring, the roster is filled with red flags as the team suffered many losses throughout the offseason.
Right before the offseason even begun, star edge-rusher J.J. Watt announced his intentions to retire after the season. If one loss on defense wasn’t bad enough, the Cardinals also lost cornerback Byron Murphy Jr. and defensive end Zach Allen to free agency. And to top it all off, wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins was released after failure to reach an agreement on a new deal. The Cardinals were unable to make any significant noise through free agency as the team began to operate around the new Gannon era.
On the bright side, their draft turned out better than whatever else the team had going on. The Cardinals started things off by taking Ohio State tackle Paris Johnson Jr. with the sixth overall pick in the draft. Paris looks to play a big role in helping strengthen a relatively weak offensive line, and his linked history with the franchise made for a feel-good story – a great pick overall. Arizona was also able to scoop up LSU edge-rusher BJ Ojulari in the second round and Louisville corner Kei’Trel Clark for great value in the sixth round. Both played their respective position at a great level and look to help improve a recently-fractured Cardinals defense. There was a lot of trading picks down for more selections in later rounds, but they did a good job of preserving capital and striking at the right moment.
The draft was a success, but the immediate future for Arizona is still not looking too bright as the team enters 2023. The biggest issue revolves around quarterback Kyler Murray’s inability to start due to an injury late in the previous season. Add on the lack of star power and a coach with a negative track record, and you’ve got a team that’s looking to tank. But if it’s one thing we’ve learned from Arizona, it’s that another tank job isn’t going to help this team return to contention. It would cause more problems as the team would be forced to decide Murray’s future.
The Cardinals truly have a lot on their plate – and it doesn’t look like things are going to get better anytime soon.
Season Outlook Grade – F